Do No Harm

by Jonathan Ambrosino

The most striking development in the last fifty years of organ culture is breadth of scope. In the explosion of approach that dominated the latter half of the twentieth century, the definitions of ‘new organ’ and ‘restoration’ had never before been so broad. Even as recently as twenty years ago, it would have been hard to forecast a time in which so many different kinds of instruments would be built, so many philosophies sharing the commercial and artistic arena.

One of the problems of such breadth, however, is the erosion of obvious validity. When so many possibilities exist, it becomes harder to sort the great from the good, the prudent from the expedient. To some degree, artistic choices are always influenced by spin and hype (the kind word here is ‘context’); a plethora of choices often serves to mask rather than illuminate the obvious right path. And while the many options available to today’s organbuilding clients are exciting and dynamic, they are increasingly the downfall of many a fine old American organ.

The American old organ movement began in the 1950s with the formation of the Organ Historical Society, and continued to gain strength in the 1960s. At first the links were tenuous: with the revival of interest in mechanical action, old organs held the twin appeal of preserving history and obtaining a tracker instrument. All too often, however, restoration was the last concept applied to these organs. Out-and-out rebuilding was billed as restoration, and in the process original actions, winding, tonal design and voicing was lost forever. Where funds were restricted, a normal cleaning and overhaul might occur, thus preserving the organ in its original disposition.

A stricter approach to restoration was born in the 1970s, where began to be applied not only to 19th-century tracker organs but to early 20th-century electro-pneumatic instruments as well. At the time, such an approach was daring. The thought of refurbishing an electric-action organ was unthinkable without some kind of tonal change, since, after all, this is what organists and builders had done all century long — modifying tonal schemes in order to make them relevant to new musical contexts. The building-block nature of most electric-action organs, as opposed to the unified construction of a tracker, facilitated changes on both a practical and an aesthetic level. With the introduction of solid-state technology in the 1970s, and multilevel combination actions in 1980, an additional strain was placed upon the restoration process: does one restore the entire instrument, or remove original equipment and include the new technology? In almost every case, the notion of modern convenience has won out over preservation of the past. Saint Sulpice is grand and glorious, most would seem to be saying, but not for my parish church or me.

There is a constant notion that old organs, like old cars, have utility only in the abstract, fun for a Sunday drive but impractical for commuting. I hope to see the day when organs are considered among the most useful of antiques and worthy of completely unintrusive preservation — like an old piano or dining table, as useful today as when built. But organs aren’t like cars at all, but like the churches that house them. Any church reflects the architecture and economy of its time and place. But whether its architectural style falls in or out of vogue, the edifice itself continues to welcome patrons and remain true to its intention. Ideally, the building’s architectural statement inspires its parishioners as much as the purpose of why they come. In the larger picture, should we choose to look for it, such a building offers a valuable lesson in how its culture viewed the church’s function and purpose.

Can we not view organs in the same way? Exceedingly few organs from the past exist precisely as they were built. Working within their perceived limitations often holds the key to understanding what such instruments are all about. When we propose to alter what little history hands us, we need to be mindful of the consequences. There are clearly inferior instruments that merit no particular privilege of perpetuity. But when altering something of known stature, even when it seems not to meet our particular needs, we potentially deny ourselves and future generations of an authentic experience (understanding how and why things were done), as well as superimposing our personal tastes, however reasoned, on the future. The responsibility is larger than it seems.

The most difficult question is reconciling taste, function and perpetuity. When an organ has tremendous historic interest and produces a good ensemble, but is perceived not only by our generation but several previous ones as somehow limited, what does one do? In America, G. Donald Harrison set a precedent by repeatedly revising some of the earliest and most important Aeolian-Skinners (the Groton School, St. Mary the Virgin and All Saints Worcester organs, not to mention numerous examples of Skinner’s work). And although we rarely consider Skinner in this light, he did the same thing, though much less frequently: ’40s additions to Saint Thomas Church, New York; Trinity Church, San Francisco, a 1924 organ revised almost yearly until 1930; 1938 revisions at Abbey Chapel, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, transforming a good organ from 1922 into a genuinely exciting one). In each case, Skinner and Harrison were trying to superimpose a later aesthetic on more youthful efforts.

Contrast this to our perspective of these gentlemen’s work, which tends to view Skinner’s later efforts as his most distinguished, while ironically regarding Harrison’s earlier work as his finest. Thus it might follow that we should have no difficulty altering the work of the ’50s to sound as if from the ’30s, or add upperwork to a 1922 Skinner in the belief that given the chance, the old man would have done likewise. Perhaps this is more enlightened than the ideology of the ’60s and ’70s, when historic organs were sold, scrapped or rebuilt beyond recognition. More recently, things have gotten better without really improving: the "complete rebuild" has mellowed to the "sympathetic updating." If only they were alive today, this rationale goes, the great builders would come back and change the organs … and precisely to how we now desire them!

To do this, we necessarily invoke the conceit that we know more than did the instrument’s creator. Perhaps the brightest builders do, but if history is any yardstick, the rest of us simply do not. A builder may well have had a right to tinker with his own work, and in a few spectacular instances, he has certainly known what to do with others’: the Cavaillé-Coll rebuilds of Notre Dame and Saint-Sulpice, the Skinner rebuild at Yale University’s Woolsey Hall. But these are monumental exceptions, not to be taken as license to try our hand at ‘bettering.’ Just look at the later work at Notre Dame compared with the restoration at St.-Sulpice: people may argue over which is better, but there is no argument whatsoever about where people go to hear the real Cavaillé-Coll.

Too often, our rationale for changes seems based upon an instrument’s stylistic, not its musical shortcomings; it may do one thing well while we condemn it for not doing another. Or it may be mechanically limited in ways that prevent us from playing expected corners of the repertoire. For this reason, we must acknowledge our own shortcomings: must every organ fit the core expectation? Besides, what one incumbent considers hopelessly unmusical, the next may find subtly magical. More interestingly, a third organist might return after twenty years to discover something of deep beauty (or sheer mediocrity, for that matter). The elegance of this phenomenon is how the organ remains uncannily intact, unharmed, always ready anew to tell out its story. After all, leaving organs alone is the only way to allow history to reach its eventual admirers.
Reproduced with permission from the March/April 2001 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2001